Are incidents of piracy and armed robbery resurfacing in the waterways of Southeast Asia? According to the First Quarter Report from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery (ReCAAP)’s Information Sharing Center, 25 armed robbery incidents against ships were reported in Asia, with the majority occurring in Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS). According to the First Quarter Report, no piracy incidents were reported during this period.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as any illegal act committed against a ship “in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” Therefore, any illegal action against the ships “within a State’s internal waters, archipelagic waters and territorial sea” is considered an armed robbery, according to the International Maritime Organization’s Code of Practice. The distinction is important because many of the incidents in Southeast Asian waters fall under the category of armed robberies, given the narrow straits that run through the territorial waters or archipelagic waters of the region’s nations. However, the recent surge in armed robbery incidents has nonetheless raised concerns for the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication that run through Southeast Asia.
Between 2007 and 2022, the incidence of piracy and ship hijackings for ransom was significantly reduced due to multiple measures including coordinated patrolling, surveillance, information sharing, capacity building, the establishment of control centers, and the strengthening of legal frameworks. Furthermore, establishing the ReCAAP has been crucial in building the network between stakeholders and coastal countries. But, there has been a notable increase in armed robbery incidents reported in the SOMS and off the Indonesian coast since 2015. Although the reported incidents have mostly involved the theft of insignificant items such as cargo, oil, spare parts, scrap metal, valves, and fittings, they should not be disregarded. From these incidents, it is clear that armed perpetrators have identified weaknesses in the law enforcement operations in the area and are focusing their attention on stealing low-value items. Southeast Asian littoral nations should address this issue promptly before it escalates and becomes a regional security concern.
In order to address these threats effectively, it is crucial to understand the three primary factors responsible for the increase of piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia.
First, the region’s busy, narrow shipping lanes, large anchorage spaces, and high shipping density force vessels to move more slowly, which makes them vulnerable to pirates. This also makes it cheaper and faster for pirates to target ships closer to port areas or territorial waters. It has been observed that criminals often use small boats resembling fishing vessels to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies. According to the “Guide Book on Identification of Fishing Boats in the Asian Waters,” which ReCAAP published in order to familiarize shipmasters and crews with the characteristics and appearance of the boats operating in the region, pirates also use advanced technologies like GPS, Automatic Identification Systems, and radars to plan their heists in advance.
Second, regional navies, coast guards, and civilian law enforcement agencies have a limited capacity to conduct regular patrols and monitor illegal activities within their territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones. There have been reports of law enforcement officials colluding with pirates by informing them of the movements and nature of cargo shipments and, in some cases, permitting them to operate in territorial waters. Because of the weak governance and corruption in many Southeast Asian countries, many pirates are able to evade the law. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of coordination between the Navy, law enforcement agencies, and port authorities.
Third, the differences in domestic laws toward piracy among coastal states remain a significant issue. The government of Singapore has enacted specific laws to address the problem. Although Malaysia does not have a specific piracy law, its Maritime Enforcement Agency Act of 2004 contains a provision addressing heinous crimes like piracy. However, the fact that incidents of armed robbery do not fall under the Act’s definition of piracy is a cause for concern. In the case of Indonesia, experts have pointed out that the nation’s anti-piracy law is ineffective in addressing piracy and that sentences given by Indonesian courts are less severe compared to neighboring countries. The discrepancies in the domestic laws also jeopardize the cooperation with other countries in combating piracy in the SOMS.
Despite several initiatives like coordinated patrol and information sharing among the Southeast Asian navies, practical maritime cooperation has proven inadequate in addressing the persistent issue of piracy in the SOMS. Given the nature of piracy and armed robbery in the region today, it is crucial for Southeast Asian nations to put joint measures in place in order to stem such activities in the region. The region’s governments may also consider forming a regional agency solely chartered with anti-piracy and anti-robbery roles by developing uniform, strict, and enforceable laws for the region and reducing the overlap between existing state organs that operate independently.